The following article was published in the Lynchburg News & Advance on Sunday, January 29, 2012. It is reprinted with permission.
By Amy Trent
The glass doors close behind Butch Lentz as he leaves the Food Lion. Inside, wide swaths of shelf space sit empty as the store liquidates its stock.
“It would affect me right bad,” when the store closes, said Lentz. For years he has walked from his Rivermont Avenue home, past the nearby convenience store, so he can take advantage of the variety and lower prices available in the supermarket on Bedford Avenue. This month Delhaize America, which owns Food Lion, announced that the store would close by Feb. 15, part of a downsizing that will shutter dozens of stores across the South.
At that point Lentz will face a tough choice. He can spend part of his grocery money to pay for the bus trip to the next-closest grocery store, or shop at the nearby convenience store, where prices are higher but the variety is not.
When you live in a food desert, as thousands of Lynchburg-area residents do, the choice isn’t so easy and the ramifications of making the wrong choice can be life altering.
Food deserts are a classification determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for areas where residents have limited access to affordable, nutritious food. Those living in Lynchburg’s food deserts have even greater challenges, in that many are low income and they don’t have access to reliable transportation. The poverty rate in Lynchburg, 20.7 percent, is nearly double the poverty level of the state.
According to the USDA, Lynchburg has eight areas — delineated by census tracts — that are food deserts. Those areas cover a wide swath of the city, and encompass 24,000 residents. In two of those tracts, at least 25 percent of the residents are children.
There also are two food deserts in Amherst County and one food desert in Bedford County, according to the USDA.
When the Food Lion on Bedford Avenue closes, the number of affected residents in Lynchburg is expected to grow. The next-closest grocery stores will be the Kroger on Rivermont Avenue, about 2.5 miles away, and the full-service stores available on Memorial Avenue in and around The Plaza, at least two miles away.
In an area where only about 44 percent of residents own a car, those miles matter.
Food deserts, identified nationwide by the USDA in a study released in May of 2011, are part of a national, decades-long trend created as supermarkets followed residents from urban to suburban areas.
Until 1966, for example, Main Street in Lynchburg featured two national chain grocery stores and another sat on 12th Street, just about three blocks away.
Today, residents living in College Hill, Diamond Hill, Garland Hill, Tinbridge Hill, Daniels Hill and White Rock Hill – and consequently in five of the city’s eight food deserts – rely on convenience stores to fill the gap.
There is a direct link between food deserts and chronic health diseases, said Leslie Hoglund, a senior health educator with the Virginia Department of Health Central Virginia Health District. Her group, ACHIEVE, has learned that nearly 70 percent of adults in this area are overweight or obese and 11 percent have diabetes.
A national Gallup-Healthways study in 2010 showed that the Lynchburg area was the eighth most obese metro area in the country. Among those polled, 10 of 14 residents said they didn’t have access to fruits and vegetables or safe places to exercise – although the Road Runners Club of America just last week named Lynchburg the “Outstanding Runner Friendly Community” of 2011.
The Gallup study pegged 33 percent of the local population as obese compared to the national average of 26.5 percent. About 23 percent of those polled said they didn’t have enough money for food.
Hoglund said it’s all tied together.
Residents with access to supermarkets have numerous produce choices and have access to lower fat versions of items. They also pay lower prices than they would at a convenience store, according to a Randolph College study recently published in the Virginia Economic Journal.
The Randolph students surveyed everything from canned fruit to canned meat and found that the average canned good cost customers 87 percent more at the convenience store. The same was true of fresh produce, with convenience stores charging 53 percent more on average than grocery stores. Nowhere did students find food in a convenience store priced lower than at the grocery store.
“I think it’s very disturbing that some of the children in this community don’t live within walking distance of a store where they can find healthy food,” said Lynchburg Mayor Joan Foster.
The Bedford Avenue Food Lion “is used by a diverse group of people,” said Foster. “I know that it is used by walkers.”
She is concerned that road construction, which restricted access to the Food Lion, had an impact on store revenue and that last year’s revenue was a determining factor in closing the store. Her letter to Delhaize America, which owns Food Lion, will address construction as well as the impact a food desert will have on residents. She hopes to persuade the company to reconsider closing the store.
“I want children to grow to be healthy and to be the best they can be, and when children aren’t eating healthy, it impedes that growth,” said Foster.
‘Vital part of community’
Standing behind the counter, Kowanda Johnson, 25, carefully slices a plump red tomato in preparation for the lunch rush. It takes nearly 30 minutes to finish as a steady flow of customers interrupt, coming in to White Rock Market for lottery tickets and cigarettes, and to find out when lunch will be ready.
The home-cooked meals of chicken, potato wedges and hamburgers – even more than the beer, potato chips, and Ramen noodles – keep the store busy, said Johnson.
Offering a quick tour of the store, she points to the top sellers – canned meats, chips, cereal, condiments and baking goods. On some days, that list includes snagging a lottery ticket near the cash register.
As customers enter, greeted by their nicknames, Johnson begins pulling together the pieces of their orders before they even ask. Many linger to visit, plug their cell phones into the wall plug near the door or scratch their lottery tickets, hoping her presence brings them luck.
“This is convenient for picking up the odds and ends,” said David Morgan, as he leaves and makes his way down the street to his home.
But White Rock Market, like other convenience stores, is so much more.
Some clients routinely overpay for their items; Johnson squirrels away the change to cover costs for kids who don’t have enough money for their purchases. The store’s owner, Khalid Chaudhry, has a connection with his customers and the term “store credit” comes up regularly.
“This store is a vital part of the community,” said Morgan.
John Abell, the economics professor who led the Randolph College study, said convenience stores play a huge role in residents’ lives.
“They see themselves as providing a good neighborhood service, which they are in a sense,” said Abell. “They are filling a gap that’s badly needed because good quality food is needed.”
And, “like good entrepreneurs they are providing what people are interested in.”
Part of the challenge is just that.
Johnson, whose front counter features a basket overfilled with fresh bananas, said that is the only fruit she keeps stocked because it is the only one her clients want. Likewise, the coolers feature what sells best, and that is where beer and soda options outnumber milk choices.
That is the norm according to Abell’s work, which shows that the availability of fresh produce in convenience stores in the 24504 area is limited. He and his students found apples and tomatoes in one store and bananas, potatoes and onions in two stores. One store carried no produce because of a lack of demand, according to the study. His students detailed the offerings of five convenience stores.
Hoglund, who knows the role convenience stores play in food deserts, wants to bring storeowners into the fold so they can become part of the push to keep city residents healthy. Ideally, she said, people would be able to find apples, oranges and bananas as well as chips and drinks when they stop at the convenience store.
"It’s about trying to create healthy options in every environment,” she said.
A number of residents have begun to talk about ways to bring healthy options to the food deserts. These include appealing to an independent grocer to open in the area, expanding the downtown Farmer’s Market and creating a co-op that would be owned and run by the community.
A food co-op group plans to meet Feb. 2 to discuss how it might solve the problem. Hoglund said food co-ops – which are open to anyone, not just members – have been successful elsewhere and she is optimistic that Lynchburg will be able to support one.
Cecil Hunter, meanwhile, is holding out hope that city officials can convince Delhaize America to keep the local Food Lion open.
“This store was a big plus for this neighborhood,” said Hunter, as he talked about the seniors who walk to the store and the employees who walk to and from work. When it closes, “it’s going to hurt a lot of people in the community.”